UCU calls on government to end ‘huge financial uncertainty’ for universities

In a letter to Gavin Williamson, the union outlines its seven-point plan for staff and institutions in higher education

The University and College Union (UCU) has sent a letter to the government calling for protections for universities and colleges during the coronavirus crisis.

The UCU’s ‘seven-point plan’ demands government funding protections and support for employees.

The letter from UCU general secretary Jo Grady to education secretary Gavin Williamson called for the government to underwrite present funding levels, to make up for a shortfall in revenue next year because of coronavirus.

Ms Grady also called for government to:

  • Head off redundancies
  • Cancel the REF and TEF for the foreseeable future
  • Stop any university from going bust
  • Require universities “to work cooperatively” rather than competitively
  • Convene a working group to consider the next academic year, which could be severely disrupted

Loss of revenue

Some universities have indicated that fixed-term staff contracts won’t be renewed, as finance teams scale back expenditure ahead of what is expected to be a difficult year for university revenues.

The University of Sussex emailed managers last week, instructing them to terminate the employment of all “non-business critical posts” held by fixed-term staff.

The correspondence to departmental heads at Sussex states that “posts currently held by tutors [and] work carried out by other casual staff, will need to be reviewed in light of forthcoming scheduled teaching and where possible, terminated as soon as possible”.

A spokesperson for Sussex University said all fixed-term contracts would be “honoured until the end of the contract, and then reviewed before the end of the term, which may result in a new contract being offered.

“In many cases, the agreements are for medium to long-term periods of time, so the review will not be taking place immediately. If these roles are considered critical to the running of the organisation, the agreement will be renewed.”

International student recruitment

The tuition fees paid by non-EU international students help cross-subsidise teaching and research within universities. A significant downturn in international student recruitment would create a blackhole in university revenues.

According to analysis by the Higher Education Policy Institute, university research is underfunded against its true costs. While the tuition fees of non-EU international students cover 139.3% of their costs, research funding covers on average only 69.4% of expenses.

International students, on average, paid £5,100 more in tuition fees than it costs to teach them – around £4,250 of that figure is spent on topping up research funding pots.

There is also uncertainty around the future of government research funding – universities do not yet know if they can keep hold of money awarded to them by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), but which has not been able to be spent because of the coronavirus shutdown. Funds not spent can be recouped by the funding councils if they have not been spent on the activities for which they were awarded within the time allotted.

In an open letter to the research and development (R&D) sector, UKRI chief executive Prof Sir Mark Walport wrote: “Many people are also deeply concerned about their immediate situation and livelihoods. So, as well as supporting efforts to tackle this pandemic, UKRI’s role, in concert with other funders and government, is to ensure that the R&D system – and the people who are its lifeblood – emerge from this current situation in the best possible health.”

UCU demands to government in full:

  • Underwrite current funding levels.
  • Reach sector-wide agreements “for the timing and character of the resumption of teaching in the new academic year; and pooling and sharing research capacity where there is a wider strategic interest in doing so”.
  • Cross-party agreement on next academic year, including the viability of long-term distance learning. The letter added: “With the trajectory of the pandemic still unclear, UCU is concerned that overambitious plans to resume operations in the autumn will mislead potential students into believing a return to normal operations is imminent. This lack of clear and transparent information is particularly relevant given the substantial lifetime financial investment now required in order to access student loans in HE and FE.
  • Confirm furlough arrangments for fixed-term staff.
  • Extend UKRI research grants to support staff retention.
  • Prepare to act in case an HE institution struggles financially in the next academic year because of a dip in international students.
  • Postpone REF 2021 and TEF indefinitely.
  • Expand lifelong learning provision for people who may lose their job as a result of Covid-19.

Read more: Coronavirus: how UK universities are helping the nation

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